Diamonds are Forever - but Aboriginal Land Rights?

Author

On 7 November 1979, Jimmy Smith, the manager of the Dunham River Lease (an Aboriginal-owned and controlled cattle station), along with Kim Akerman, the anthropologist for the Kimberley Land Council (KLC), and Peter Bindon from the Human Studies section of the Western Australia (W.A.) Museum flew over the Glen Hill region near Lake Argyle to investigate some newly-built roads there. It was thought that these roads were the work of cattle thieves. The inspection revealed instead that the roads, and associated test trenches, were the products of mineral exploration. Sacred sites in the area of Devil Spring had been desecrated.

"Aboriginal land owners are consulted before exploration is commenced on their land and care is taken to safeguard sacred sites" - from the 1979 Annual Reporte of Conzinc Riotinto of Australia Ltd.

The Kimberleys region of Western Australia became famous in the conflict between large mining interests and Aborigines with the struggle of the people at Noonkanbah, an Aboriginal pastoral lease, to prevent oil (and/or gas?) drilling on their land. Though they were unsuccessful, they did begin to focus attention on the plight of Aborigines faced with mining development. They also realized the need for organization: the KLC, a body of eight elected Aborigines, emerged to represent the interest and point of view of the area's 15,000 Aborigines (who make up 75 percent of the population). The mining companies also learned from Noonkanbah; they are now applying those lessons elsewhere in mineral-rich W.A.

One place where the companies are succeeding nicely is the Ashton Joint Venture (AJV) diamond mine at Lake Argyle. This mine was featured in a recent article in The New York Times (12/4/81, p. D1, cont. p. D6), from which much of the following economic data is extracted. The Times article, though, failed to mention Aborigines; it ignored the controversial "settlement" signed by some of the traditional owners of the area - but not signed by the vast majority; and it neglected to place the mine in the context of the Aborigines/extractive industries debate that has raged across Australia for the past ten years. Perhaps this article reflects only the success of AJV's public relations campaign promoting their "good neighbor" policy rather than gross insensitivity on the part of the editors of the Times.

Diamonds have been known in the Kimberleys for many years; there are tales of Aborigines using large diamonds as tools; but no deposits great enough to make extraction commercially viable were found until 1978. This discovery, by the Ashton Syndicate at Ellendale station, started something of a "diamond rush" in the Kimberleys, and was followed in late 1979 by another, much larger find; mining engineers from Conzinc Riotinto of Australia Ltd. (CRA), a subsidiary of the British firm Rio Tinto-Zinc, discovered a tube of Kimberlite near Smoke Creek on the Ord River. (Kimberlite is a mineral deposit of crystalline tubes rather than veins like many other minerals - where diamonds are often found; it was named after another Kimberly, this one in South Africa's diamond-rich Cape Province.) This new find, the Argyle Prospect, has a Kimberlite tube that covers 111 acres, including part of the reservoir bed of Lake Argyle. It will be mined by AJV.

In addition to CRA, which holds a 58.6 percent share, other participants in AJV include the Ashton Mining Group (38.2 percent) and the Northern Mining Corporation (5 percent). They feel that, by 1985, AJV will be the largest diamond mine in the world and that Australia will eclipse Zaire as the world's greatest producer of diamonds. Total world production in 1980 was 50 million carats. If the Argyle deposits are as rich as some believe, they could produce 40 million carats a year by themselves (NYT, 12/4/81); other estimates include 25 million carats annually (The Economist; 6/27/81) and go as "low" as 10 million carats a year (Age, 6/5/81).

"The Law has been passed on through countless generations of people through the remembrance and celebration of the sites which were the scenes of the ancestral exploits" - Aboriginal writer Marcia Langton.

"When things get difficult for government they simply bring in new law"- unknown Arnhemland Aborigine.

Under Australian law, owning the land does not give rights to the minerals under the surface - those rights lie with the government, to use as it sees fit, for the best for the people of Australia as a whole.

In W.A., Aborigines face a worse situation perhaps than elsewhere: they have no guaranteed land rights, no power to veto mining on their land, and are unable to require the mining companies to negotiate compensation payments. The Ashton partners, in their quest for better and better public relations, have taken good advantage of W.A.'s loose legal requirements.

In late July 1980, CRA flew John Toby and five other Aborigines from the Glen Hill area to Perth for a weekend. On the 27th they signed and witnessed an agreement not to oppose CRA and the other Ashton partners; in return, CRA and the others agreed to spend A$200,000 on capital improvements works in the first year and A$100,000 a year, indexed to the inflation rate, thereafter. Citing this, CRA claims it has an agreement with the traditional owners at Argyle. It says it has consulted regularly with the Glen Hill people on developments at the mine; and it has spent more than A$280,000 - A$80,000 above that required - on an outstation being set up near the mine. The agreement was welcomed by former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Chaney as a case of successful negotiation between a mining company and an Aboriginal group.

This agreement has been opposed by the KLC and the other Aborigines in the area. A survey undertaken by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies (AIAS) found that more than 50 Aborigines, from several communities, had some form of traditional claim to the area. Kingsley Palmer, one of the AIAS anthropologists, told the National Times (1/18-24/81) that, "CRA reached an agreement with the wrong group of people - or only a part of that group."

The KLC objects to the agreement, which was reached in only three weeks and brings in royalties of only 0.05 percent of the expected annual income from the mine, as an example of a mining company using divide-and-rule tactics against local Aborigines. They also point out that it compares unfavorably with compensation packages elsewhere in Australia: the Ranger uranium agreement (in the Northern Territory) took over a year to negotiate and provides Aborigines with royalties of 4.25 percent of the annual turnover. The KLC insists that the agreement is not binding on any of the other Aboriginal communities, and has called on CRA to renegotiate, with all of the traditional owners who will be affected by the mining.

In return, CRA points out that, unlike the Land Councils in the Northern Territory, the KLC has no legal standing in W.A. Greg Walker, CRA's public affairs manager, says that sustaining this agreement will be a top priority of the Ashton partners; in addition, they will try to "isolate this agreement from the general debate on Aboriginal land rights" (The Age, 6/20/81). CRA also rejected the claims that the agreement was reached hastily, without adequate legal advice, and without consultation with all of the traditional owners of the area. Walker claimed that the signees of the agreement acted on behalf of 34 of the 36 adult traditional owners identified in the AIAS report.

This claim has been disputed by Michael Dillon, who was then advisor to the Aboriginal community at Turkey Creek - the base of many of the traditional owners. He said that of the 34 people at the meeting (which he "crashed"), 15 were not traditional owners; thus, there were 17 adult traditional owners not present at the meeting. In addition, Dillon says, there was no legal council for the Aborigines, at the meeting, and he felt that many "didn't grasp the implications of what they were signing away."

Currently, the Ashton partners seem satisfied keeping this agreement and relying on their public relations program to shift opinion to their side; it is apparent that, in the absence of legal means, to force them to negotiate a new agreement will require a massive shift of public opinion away from them.

I can see no advantage in "arrangements in which Australian diamond discoveries only serve to strengthen a South African monopoly" - Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

Most Australians who agree that mining should benefit the country as a whole also agree that the diamonds will benefit no one unless they are sold somewhere. Here, though, agreement ends; there is considerable debate as to how these gems should be marketed. The Ashton partners, and the W.A. government, would prefer to sell them directly to South Africa's DeBeers Consolidated Mines, which already markets nearly 80 percent of the (free?) world's diamonds through its Central Selling Organization (CSO). The Federal government, though, as a member of the Commonwealth, officially opposes any association with DeBeers, or any other South African firm, because of that country's policy of apartheid. Despite this official policy, Prime Minister Fraser has indicated a willingness to leave the decision up to the Ashton partners and the W.A. government, which, again, are leaning towards association with DeBeers.

This is unfortunate. DeBeers already has unusual power over the world's diamond market. It is widely believed that the recent drop in diamond prices, especially of industrial stones, was a "punitive action" instigated by DeBeers against Zaire when that country withdrew from the CSO; Zaire was forced to cut its production from more than ten million carats annually to around six million (NYT). AJV officials believe that they may be similarly "punished" if they don't sell to the CSO.

Economically, it is DeBeers that actually stands to win or lose the most with the Ashton partners' decision. If Australia markets its diamonds elsewhere, the world's three largest diamond producers - presumably Australia, Zaire, and the Soviet Union - would be outside the CSO; combined, they could market well over half the natural industrial diamonds sold every year. (There are, also, synthetic industrial diamonds, of which DeBeers markets about 45 percent and the US's General Electric, 40 percent.) How low would, or could, DeBeers allow the price to fall in its fit of retribution? Within a few years, Australia, acting independently, might have greater control of the (industrial) diamond market than even DeBeers.

If Ashton does sell to DeBeers, the South African firm's control of the diamond market would be enormously reinforced; simply by stockpiling Australian diamonds they could keep the price artificially high while protecting their own future. They would also be free to flood the market, and thus smash the diamond industry in Zaire, if they chose. Dealing with DeBeers would hurt Australia's image in the Third World, especially in Black Africa; Australia's Aborigines are also sure to object to the support of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

"It's rubbish to say all Aborigines are against mining - most are open to negotiation, provided companies treat us in a civilized fashion and don't rip up sacred sites" -Darryl Kickett, chairman of the Kimberly Land Council.

The W.A. government, by its actions on behalf of or in support of the mining companies, has shown a callous disregard for the Aboriginal people of the Kimberleys. They have not required any environmental impact study examining the effects on Aborigines of any proposed development projects. The Museum has, according to the Aborigines at Turkey Creek, not protected known sacred sites from mining, as it is legislated to (this is being investigated by the W.A. Ombudsman). They have not guaranteed royalties and compensation for the Aborigines where there is mining on Aboriginal land. They have permitted mining companies with a high level of foreign investment to operate in W.A. - the effective, real Australian equity in the AJV is only a maximum of 46.4 percent (Financial Review, 2/9/81). Finally, they have refused to recognize or fund the KLC to ensure that Aboriginal concerns are adequately taken into account.

It is in the interests of the Aborigines, the W.A. government, and the mining companies to ensure that Aboriginal communities likely to be affected by mining are able to adequately communicate their interests in a genuine process of negotiation. In the Northern Territory, the Land Councils have filled this need; the KLC could, with government support, fulfill a similar function in W.A.

To go beyond this, the interests of the Aborigines, the government, and the mining companies are not usually as much at odds as they might appear. Most Aborigines are not opposed to mining, as long as it doesn't disturb sacred sites and they are justly compensated for their loss of land. Perhaps if the mining companies dealt with the Aborigines, not as adversaries but as partners, the process would be that much smoother. As the companies provide capital and technical knowledge, the Aborigines provide land. Such a scenario would require that the Aborigines be involved in every stage of the decision-making process, starting with the initial exploration and continuing through the marketing of the product and the post-mining reclamation and revegetation of the land. It would also require a bit more patience and understanding on the part of the mining companies: Aboriginal communities may not make decisions in any way analogous to a large mining company; in addition, some of these decisions would certainly be to not mine a particular area, for reasons important perhaps only to the community. These decisions, which would usually involve sacred sites, must be respected by the mining companies for the idea of partnership to have any validity.

Mining in Australia is meant to benefit the people of the country as a whole as well as those on whose land the mining takes place. By providing Aborigines with a position in the national structure even as they reaffirm their respect for Aboriginal forms of organization, the mining industry would facilitate the integration - but not assimilation - of the Aborigines into the national society as a viable ethnic minority. They couldn't ask for better public relations.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue:

CSQ Disclaimer

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.